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The twilight of the emperors offers us a look back at the last years of three great monarchies that have marked European history. By retracing the parallel destinies of three emperors (mainly Franz Joseph I, Nicholas ii and William II), historian and expert on Russia Francine-Dominique Liechtenstein quite simply evokes the end of a world whose consequences are still being felt.
Content and structure of the book
The author deploys his thoughts here according to a plan that is both chronological and thematic, divided into 9 chapters, but systematically keeping as a common thread the parallel destinies of the last Emperors of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.
A common thread that begins with a finding that is both obvious and with profound implications, these three empires face similar pitfalls. Authoritarian institutional buildings, they are marked by the inadequacy of their monarchs to radical social and political changes.
Thus the Habsburg Empire (of Austria, then of Austria-Hungary) over which Franz Joseph will reign from 1848 to 1916 faces major challenges. The beginning of the emperor's reign is a symbol of this in every way. 1848 sees multiple revolutions and revolts (initially parts of northern Italy) shake the Empire. There are mixed liberal political demands, as well as the first manifestations of a workers' movement and especially the wills of emancipation of various nationalities from the supervision of Vienna. A fierce supporter of the reaction, Franz Joseph replaces his uncle Ferdinand I on the throne, after the latter, epileptic and somewhat limited, proved incapable of stemming the revolutionary tide.
All his life, François-Joseph will have to take into account the consequences of the uprisings of 1848. His multinational empire will prove to be more and more incapable of managing its own contradictions. His emperor, little prepared to reign, nevertheless incarnated all the pomp and power, often illusory.
In all of this he is no different from the two cousins Nicholas II of Russia and William II of Germany. Both grandsons of the queen Victoria (the other symbol of monarchical Europe with François-Joseph), very marked by their English ancestry (the two cousins who appreciate each other speak in particular in English) will both have to deal with a political context and social unfavorable to the autocratic tradition that they embody. In Germany, William had to deal with extremely rapid urbanization and industrialization, which fostered the rise of a powerful socialist movement. Particularly conservative, he hardly appreciates this development, which he tries as best he can to counter with a flamboyant and bellicose foreign policy, supposed to unite the German people behind the monarchy.
Nicolas, meanwhile, inherits an admittedly gigantic Russian Empire and lightning economic growth (we will think in particular of the development of industry, boosted by foreign capital and our famous " russian loans ") But plagued by the corruption of a bloated administration facing very violent protests. They find expression in the bloody revolution of 1905, which followed the defeat suffered by the Japanese. In many ways, this year 1905 heralds the catastrophe that will sweep away the three empires that structure central and eastern Europe. An industrial war, marked with the seal of technology, extremely costly in terms of men, coupled with political and social unrest, where democratic aspirations and thirst for social justice are mixed.
But the fact is that as long as François-Joseph as Nicolas or Guillaume, are hardly armed intellectually or psychically to face such tests. All three were brought up in the cult of the army and order, which hardly encouraged them to compromise. In addition, all three became emperors following an unfortunate combination of circumstances. As specified above, François Joseph succeeds his uncle, in full revolutionary turmoil. This 18 year old young man who likes to play soldier, will have no other reaction than to burst into tears in his mother's arms after the handover. François-Jospeh will reign out of duty, never out of taste. It will be the same for Nicolas II. A shy child, also very close to his mother, he was educated like the Austrian emperor, the hard way and in the cult of the army and order. Crushed by the personality of his father, Alexander III, a colossus whose health is known to be iron, he does not expect to ascend the throne for very long years. At the age of 26, he succeeded Alexander III, who died of incurable kidney disease. Her first reaction to her coronation, too, will be to break down in tears.
As for Guillaume, whose personality will always be marked by the complex engendered by his infirmity (he is disabled in his left arm), he is also influenced by his mother, but in negative. A restless or even rebellious child, he drastically opposes the liberal values that she advocates and takes refuge in virile and scoundrel friendships within the military circles he admires so much. At 29, he succeeds his father Frederick III, struck down by cancer after only 99 days of reign. To this emperor renowned reformer and brilliant, succeeds an egocentric and whimsical game of man whose lack of seriousness constitutes a serious handicap in managing the affairs of the 1time European industrial power.
This quick presentation of the demonstration which underlies the reflection of Francine-Dominique Liechtenstein makes it easy to identify the rest of the work which sees the parallel evocation of the destinies of these three emperors who sometimes embark on the path of the first world conflict. This is also the occasion for the author to evoke the geopolitical dynamics of the time, but also the sometimes primordial (and not always positive) role played by the wives of the three emperors (whether it is the famous Elisabeth by Wittelsbach known as "Sissi" and especially Alix from Hesse Darmstadt who became Alexandra Feodorovna, Empress of Russia).
The last chapters of the Twilight of the Emperors, see the evocation of the destruction of the three empires, swept away as much by the military defeats as by the revolutions that their monarchs (which they sometimes encouraged, one will think of the role of William II in the support to the Bolsheviks) will prove incapable of damming. Of course, pride of place will be given to the particularly tragic fate of the Russian imperial dynasty, assassinated by the Cheka in Ekaterinburg.
Presented in a very elegant manner and embellished with a very rich iconography that allows us to discover the emperors from both a private and public perspective, this book is pleasant to read. Francine-Dominique Liechtenstein manages the feat of presenting in a clear and synthetic way the situation of the three great central empires over a period from 1848 to 1918, while never losing sight of its common thread.
And the fact is to note that this one (the parallelism between the three emperors and their unsuitability to troubled socio-political contexts) is brilliantly developed. The author does not content himself with returning to facts that have already been studied at length, but introduces thoughts (unfortunately not always sufficiently developed for our taste) that are all personal. Thus we will particularly appreciate the evocation of Elisabeth de Wittelsbach, far from the Sissi embodied by Romy Schneider. The Bavarian "savage" by her often thoughtless support for Hungarian nationalism, will certainly have contributed to the decline of Viennese imperial authority by taking the opposite view of her husband's policies. The author also takes care to relativize the responsibility of William II in the outbreak of the First World War. If he does give Vienna carte blanche to settle the Serbian question, he does not envisage a generalized European confrontation. His private correspondence with his cousin Nicholas II even proves a sincere desire to spare his country from war with Russia. The Tsar, imprisoned in his role as an autocrat and protector of the Orthodox Slavs, could not, however, escape it.
Finally Francine-Dominique Liecthenhan raises in the last pages of this book the much more contemporary questions of the religious and political recovery of the fall of the Habsburgs and the Romanovs. Whether it is the canonization as martyrs of Nicholas II and his family against the backdrop of the instrumentalization of Russian nationalism by the Moscow authorities or the beatification of the imperial Habsburg couple (Charles and Zita) by the Catholic Church.
In the end, The Twilight of the Emperors constitutes an enriching and enjoyable reading which has the merit of evoking a monarchical Europe that is both brilliant and in decline, whose fall will have profoundly marked our continent and whose memory is still very present.
F-D LIECHTENHAN, The twilight of the emperors, The end of the great European dynasties, Editions Ouest-France, 2012.